Ronnie O’Sullivan lines up a red at the Hong Kong Masters in 2022

Names in the frame

All human emotions find their expression on the green baize


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is difficult not to love a book that begins by comparing Ronnie O’Sullivan’s embrace with Judd Trump at the end of the 2022 World Snooker Championship, with Bill Murray’s unheard whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation (2003). It is one of the more low-brow references in Deep Pockets

The book comprises 22 chapters — one for every ball on the snooker table — with such titles as “Time”, “Authority” and “Disorder”. Many of them focus on a single player, and snooker fans will have fun guessing from the titles which of them it will be. “Genius” is about Ronnie O’Sullivan; “Loss” is about Jimmy White; “Sex” is about Tony Knowles. You get the picture. 

Deep Pockets: Snooker and the Meaning of Life, Brendan Cooper (Constable, £20)

A chapter that is essentially about the novelty hit “Snooker Loopy” begins with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols before bringing in William Blake, Ezra Pound, Arthur Schopenhauer and some verse by Edna St Vincent Millay. The chapter “Anger” starts with William Blake, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, King Lear and Macbeth, before recounting the story of Alex Higgins headbutting an official during the 1986 UK Championship. 

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s sudden concession to Stephen Hendry after just five frames in the 2006 UK Championship is discussed in the context of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hamlet.

If this seems a bit too highfalutin, fear not: tales from snooker’s golden age are never far away. Deep Pockets is essentially a series of essays about the author’s love of snooker, topped and tailed with quotations from history’s greatest thinkers. Readers hoping to discover the meaning of life may be disappointed, but Cooper’s belief that all human emotions find their expression on the green baize is an enticing premise for a book that should be read and re-read. 

The author has watched so much snooker that one wonders how he found time to read so many books. Colourful literary references abound. “Big” Bill Werbeniuk, who famously persuaded HMRC to allow him to claim his prodigious spending on lager as a tax-deductible expense, is described as “a Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch of mischief and roistering revelry”. Peeking his head around the dividing screen to watch his fellow Canadian Cliff Thorburn make a maximum break at the 1983 World Championship, Cooper compares Werbeniuk to a “festive genie” and an “imp of destiny”.

Elsewhere he makes astute observations about such issues as women’s snooker, fashion, class and luck, providing some facts that will be new to all but the most ardent scholar of the game. Did you know, for example, that the pittance paid to female players is an indirect consequence of the ban on tobacco sponsorship? 

The book concludes, fittingly, with chapters on television and being at home

It had never occurred to me that snooker referees are “curiously deferential, even servile” compared to those in other sports, picking the balls out of the pocket and cleaning them for the players. Nor had I heard of Snooker Plus, an ill-advised attempt to breathe life into the sport in the 1950s by adding a purple and orange ball.

The book concludes, fittingly, with chapters on television and being at home. At home in front of the TV is where the vast majority of us watch our snooker. It is where we first encountered the game. All those rainy bank holiday weekends, all those late nights, all those final-frame deciders. The players pacing around the table, eyeing up a possible plant. Not a sound to be heard apart from the click and clunk of the balls, the whisper of the commentator and the occasional tap of the table to acknowledge a good safety shot. “Slowness is precious,” writes Cooper. “Slowness is something we need; a consolation pitted against the inevitability of our end. Slowness is the heart and soul of snooker.”

Snooker is a wonderful mass of contradictions. A game played in near silence, often at a soporific pace, but capable of so much nerve-jangling drama. A game played by working class men dressed up as aristocrats. A game in which players are extraordinarily conscientious about owning up when they commit a foul and yet a game in which match-fixing is rife. As a sport, its best days are widely assumed to be behind it, and yet it has never had more viewers, more TV time or more tournaments.

Mixing the sacred and the profane, high culture and low culture, the sublime and the ridiculous, Deep Pockets is the book this game of unfathomable difficulty and infinite mystery well deserves. 

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